I know a lot of preteen boys who don’t realize they aren’t supposed to be readers. They devour books—really good books, by authors like C.S. Lewis, Brian Jacques, and Robert Louis Stevenson—and (gasp!) genuinely enjoy them.
I’m really not surprised. Children are born with a love of stories. They will ask for the same book again and again and continue to be marveled as the tale unfolds, even after the 100th reading.
Then we send them to school. For a few boys, school is time to enjoy reading in community. But for most boys, school is the end of being told the best of stories, because we are too busy making them work to meet standards. We beat the love of books out of them with workloads they weren’t meant to handle.
What ‘Captain Underpants’ Offers Readers
That’s where the “Captain Underpants” books enter in. Author Dav Pilkey empathizes with struggling readers and learners, as he suffered from childhood hyperactivity and attention issues. He was frequently put in the hall at school as punishment for his bad behavior. During his time in the hall, he first came up with the idea for superhero character Captain Underpants.
First published in 1997, there are now 12 books in the “Captain Underpants” series, and on June 2, a DreamWorks movie premieres in theaters. Some have touted the books as a wonderful way to get boys to read. But I have serious scruples with those sentiments.
As a parent and teacher, I take the business of choosing the media my children consume very seriously. Not all stories are created equally. As award-winning children’s author Katherine Paterson wrote, “It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations.” The books we read, the stories we tell, the shows we watch, and the things we experience all influence how our children play and thus how they think. As kids enter other worlds through the gateway of their imaginations, they begin to discover our own world.
A person’s imagination is a door of sorts to his soul. Michael D. O’Brien says in his book “A Landscape with Dragons” that the imagination is “a faculty of man’s soul that would help him to comprehend the invisible realities.” Children use their imaginations to help them begin to understand good and evil, right and wrong. We need to build our children’s imaginations up with stories of hope, nobility, and courage so that they will have a fountain of goodness to draw from for the trials of life.
Our Children Deserve Better Than Malicious Pranks
So what story does “Captain Underpants” tell? I read a few books in the series to find out. In addition to the expected potty jokes the title alludes to, the books are full of malicious pranks, adults running around in their underclothes (with wedgies to boot), spankings, evil school teachers and administrators, bad attitudes, vengeful children, parents who over-punish… shall I go on? The books are offensive enough that since 2001 they have made it onto the ALA’s most challenged booklist five times. In 2012 and 2013, the “Captain Underpants” series was the top book on the ALA list, both years beating the literary pornographic book, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Writing for boys from his own miserable school experience, Pilkey said, “The sad truth is, big people usually have all of the power. You can’t force anyone to be kind or fair or honorable, especially if you’re only forty-three inches tall and weigh only fifty pounds. That’s why it’s important to be smart.”
Pilkey is right. You can’t make anyone be honorable. But you can choose to be honorable even when no one else is, and that’s where Pilkey’s characters come up short. In an unfair world, they choose to repay evil with evil. And it’s the most immature kind of evil.
Is This A Case Of Adults ‘Not Getting’ Kid Humor?
Some would argue that I’m just another uptight adult who doesn’t understand the humor. Slate contributor Jessica Roake wrote:
A litmus test: How hilarious do you find the name Professor Tippy Tinkletrousers, formerly known as Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants? Not very? Then you are likely an adult person, perhaps of the female variety. If you do not find jokes about gas, poop, tinkle, wedgies, and barf endlessly hilarious—if you are not, in body or spirit, an 8-year-old boy—Dav Pilkey’s phenomenally successful Captain Underpants series is not for you. And that is precisely the point.
Even though that shot is directed at people like me, i.e. female teachers, I am willing to claim that the books are not beneficial to children. Stories can be funny and inspire children to want to be better people. Robert McCloskey, Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager, and Christopher Paul Curtis are all authors who tell funny stories that inspire readers to love something bigger than themselves.
But in an essay for the Huffington Post, Pilkey himself takes a jab at his books’ haters, “There are some adults out there who are not amused by the things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp these things out.”
Are Pilkey’s books just harmless fun that an adult cannot appreciate? As C.S. Lewis, a master of children’s literature, said, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”
Bad Humor Prevents Good Storytelling
It’s actually not primarily the humor that I don’t appreciate in “Captain Underpants,” although I do think most of it is unsurprising and repetitive. I’m actually most offended by the storytelling. The shock value of the humor carries so much weight in the books, there needn’t be a compelling plot and characters.
Pilkey’s books aim to draw in children by catering to immature tastes. But good children’s literature will cultivate the tastes of readers for the true, the good, and the beautiful. I just can’t buy into the idea that we must turn to Captain Underpants to help our boys read. Can’t we offer them something better? Aren’t our children capable of more?
We don’t need more relevant books or shocking stories to entice children to read. We need to develop a culture of reading. This will not and cannot start at schools, where our children spend their days buried in work. Only by creating homes where stories are celebrated will we draw our reluctant readers into books. Parents who read for their own good and who read to their kids will draw their children into a love of books. When parents don’t read but expect their children to, children are given the impression that reading is something you grow out of or—even worse—something parents make their kids do as punishment.
What Kids Should Read Instead
I can’t talk about books without offering a suggestion, and I have a great one. If you have a boy who is a reluctant reader, I recommend to you the “Hank the Cowdog” series by John R. Erickson. In an interview with World Magazine, Erickson said:
Hank wants to be a good dog, but he’s involved in a constant struggle with his nature: a short attention span, food lust, and an exalted opinion of his role as Head of Ranch Security. Hank is a sinner. Sometimes he rises to heroism but he doesn’t stay there for long. That describes every dog I’ve known. It also has some very funny parallels with the human condition.
Erickson’s book are funny, but they also have a deeper purpose. He believes “Good stories should nourish the spirit just as a good meal nourishes the body.”
And that’s why Captain Underpants fails children. They don’t nourish anything but immaturity. If—as some argue—getting boys to read justifies the crude jokes and storytelling, what purpose does a movie based on Pilkey’s books serve? We don’t need more movies that insult our children’s intelligence with vapid humor and uninspiring characters. There are so many better things children can do with their time.
Pilkey’s characters close out final chapter of the 11th “Captain Underpants” book by reflecting on what they had just experienced throughout the book:
“Well, that was a satisfying ending,” said Yesterday Harold, as he tucked Tony, Orlando, and Dawn into their bed.
“What do you mean, satisfying?” said George. “The city is destroyed, our teachers are in jail, there are four of us, and our three mutant pets think we’re their moms!”
“Oh yeah,” said Yesterday Harold. “I guess there are a lot of loose ends in this story.”
“Uh-oh,” said Harold. “That can only mean one thing!”
“What?” asked Yesterday George.
“Another SEQUEL!!!” said Harold.
“OH, NO!” whined George and Yesterday George.
“Here we go again!!!” moaned Harold and Yesterday Harold.
Now that’s a sentiment I can agree with.